by Celeste Ng
(4.17 stars – Goodreads rating)
Published September 12, 2017, by Penguin Press
Genre: Fiction / Adult Contemporary
Page Count: 338
All up and down the street the houses looked like any other – but inside them were people who might be happy, or taking refuge, or steeling themselves to go out into the world, searching for something better.
I have movies that I watch whenever I see them listed on the guide as I’m scrolling past 1000 things I’m 100% not interested in. There are those few that I will always stop for: The Princess Bride (of course, it’s my favorite), The Fifth Element, Clueless, The Color Purple, The Holiday, and Chocolat.
That’s right, Chocolat – and not just because of Johnny Depp either! I get something from that movie every time I see it – a sense of adventure, of bucking the system, and a feeling of being inwardly powerful enough to affect a whole town just by being yourself.
If you’re not familiar with the story, Vianne Rocher and her daughter Anouk quite literally blow into the quiet, puritanical French town of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes and immediately set up a chocolaterie (chocolate shop) – much to the dismay of several townspeople, including the town mayor, Comte de Reynaud. After all, what have these quiet, God-fearing people to do with chocolate? – And especially during Lent! They consider Vianne to be an immoral witch capable of leading them all astray into gluttony and sensuality all through the temptation of her delectable chocolates.
In the end, Vianne’s effect on the town is a marked one. She shows them all that sometimes old stodgy ways are just that, and that to be welcoming and nonjudgmental is sometimes all it takes to have a different and more positive outlook on life. Vianne’s free spirit doesn’t let her stay long in Lansquenet-sous-Tannes, but we see that she made an impact that altered all the lives around her.
Now, you may be asking, what in the whole entire world does any of this have to do with Celeste Ng’s beautifully covered book, Little Fires Everywhere? Well, a lot actually.
In Ng’s book, Shaker Heights, Ohio is an idyllic town where Mrs. Richardson fits in perfectly with her husband and four children. Theirs is an orderly and purposeful world, where expectations are known and fulfilled for the most part (the youngest daughter, Izzy, does give Mrs. Richardson a run for her money). There are the usual community scandals occasionally, but nothing an orderly town like Shaker Heights can’t put to rights very quickly. That is, until two new tenants move into the Richardson’s rental duplex. Mia and her daughter blow into town and disrupt the status quo.
See the comparisons starting now?
I refuse to spoil this book for anyone, so I won’t disclose the events that lead up to some life-changing moments for every one of the characters. But I will say that, like Vianne Rocher, Mia Warren is that free-spirited soul – either by choice or necessity – dragging her daughter Pearl from city to city changing lives and making marks that cannot (should not?) be erased.
This book is better if it is revealed slowly, unfolded like the carefully tucked paper of a middle school note, or gradually developed like a photograph.
Celeste Ng writes what our hearts wish we could articulate about life, about intimate feelings and those ultimate longings that pull on us a little more every day. Little Fires is sincere and relevant; it will catch you by the heartstrings and hold on tight. You will feel emotionally tangled, angry, joyful, indecisive, and bitter. You may also find yourself battling with your own senses of conformity versus rebellion and wondering where you would fit into the juxtapositions of Shaker Heights society. And you will feel all those emotions because Ng is a master at her craft.
Politics, social norms, privilege, free-will, and the greater good all battle for scrutiny in this book, but all are deftly woven (without “preachery” or judgment) into the lives of this particular group of people who each – for better or worse – left a mark on me. I didn’t want their stories to end.
Five enthusiastic and well-earned stars for a book that I wanted to hold on to even after I’d read the last page. And, as you know, those are the good ones.
About the Author
Celeste Ng is the author of the bestselling novels Everything I Never Told You and Little Fires Everywhere. Celeste grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Shaker Heights, Ohio, in a family of scientists. Celeste attended Harvard University and earned an MFA from the University of Michigan (now the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan), where she won the Hopwood Award. Her fiction and essays have appeared in One Story, TriQuarterly, Bellevue Literary Review, the Kenyon Review Online, and elsewhere, and she is a recipient of the Pushcart Prize. Currently, she lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
(Bio adapted from Goodreads)